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Alleged discrimination: Disability rights advocates urge action again Thai VietJet

A coalition of over 20 rights groups demand action against Thai VietJet, alleging a pattern of discrimination against passengers with disabilities in the airline industry, a claim denied by the company.

Nathaphob Sungkate/HaRDstories
Renowned disabled rights activist Manit Inphim who runs the Facebook page 'Accessibility Is Freedom, Access, and Equality' addresses fellow disabled activists outside the Ministry of Transport in Bangkok on 28 February, 2024. Nathaphob Sungkate/HaRDstories

BANGKOK –  A coalition of over 20 organisations, under the banner of “Transportation For All,” gathered in protest outside the Ministry of Transport on Wednesday, demanding immediate action against Thai VietJet Air for alleged discrimination against passengers with disabilities.

The protest was sparked by an incident on 1 February, when Krisana Lalai, president of the Friendly Design For All Foundation, was denied boarding a Thai VietJet plane due to his inability to walk independently.

The coalition argues that the refusal to accommodate Krisana Lalai is part of a broader pattern of discrimination within the airline industry, violating fundamental human rights. They are demanding that the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) suspend the airline’s operational licence until it addresses these concerns.


Airline denies discrimination allegations

In response to the allegations, Thai VietJet issued a statement explaining that the passenger was accompanied by four individuals who had not been verified as emergency assistance providers, a requirement for passengers with specific disabilities according to safety regulations. Consequently, the airline denied boarding to the disabled passenger and issued a refund for the ticket.

The airline also highlighted its commitment to inclusivity, noting its service to more than 5,300 passengers with disabilities, mobility impairments and health issues in the last year.


Government vows to look into the incident

Kajonpat Maklin, deputy director of CAAT, met with the protesting groups, emphasising the agency’s stance that all passengers, regardless of mobility, deserve equal service. Following the incident with Krisana, the airline received a formal notification from CAAT, which has yet to receive a response.

Krichanont Iyapunya, assistant minister of the Ministry of Transport, announced that the ministry would issue a letter to Thai VietJet within seven days, mandating clear supervision. He noted that the airline’s aviation licences could be reconsidered if non-compliance persists.

As the protest moved into the Ministry of Transport building, advocates using wheelchairs encountered physical access barriers, underscoring the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities in navigating public spaces. 

Sorawut Nuengchamnong, secretary to the Minister of Transport, committed to consulting with CAAT on potential penalties for the airline and to exploring preventative measures for future incidents. The goal, he stated, is to ensure non-discriminatory transportation across Thailand for all citizens, particularly the disabled and other vulnerable groups.

“After the Ministry sent a letter requesting information about the incident, the airline has not yet responded,” Sorawut said. “I promise to follow up within a week.” 


Advocates call for immediate consequences

Despite these governmental assurances, Manit Inphim, the coalition’s leader, expressed dissatisfaction, advocating for a temporary suspension of Thai VietJet’s licence until a satisfactory resolution is reached.

“Now that the offence has been committed, we urge the Ministry of Transport to temporarily suspend the licence until Thai Vietjet resolves the problem,” Manit told the representatives from the Ministry of Transport.


A pattern of discrimination?

According to “Transportation For All”, there have been several cases of discrimination by commercial airlines against passengers with physical disabilities. These cases, the group argues, demonstrate a recurring pattern of neglect and discrimination within the airline industry.

In March 2019, an Israeli accessibility designer, was denied permission by Thai VietJet to transport electric wheelchair batteries on a flight, leading to him missing his flight despite possessing the necessary certification for his electric wheelchair.

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reviewed a complaint about this incident and concluded it represented discrimination based on disability, a clear human rights violation. 

Most recently, in November of last year, the Cabinet resolved to acknowledge recommendations from the National Human Rights Commission and designated the Ministry of Transport as the primary agency to address such issues.